For Books’ Sake Talks To: Nina de la Mer

2nd Apr 2014

From strippers in Soho to soldiers in Hamburg, we discuss bisexuality, feminism and sex work with Brighton's fabulous queen of the gutter, Nina de la Mer.

“The books that bring me most joy are by writers who seek out characters on the dark side of life with settings very much cemented into reality,” says Nina de la Mer, a Scottish-born and Brighton-based writer with a flair for tenacious character-driven narratives.

“So, to name names: Jean Rhys, Knut Hamsun, Patrick Hamilton, Herta Müller. The bleaker, the better, as far as I’m concerned.”

‘Bleak’ is a word that wouldn’t be out of place in the blurbs of de la Mer’s books. From 4 a.m.’s squaddies raving it up in 90s Hamburg to the insular narrative of Layla, in which a young stripper dreams of a reunion with her little boy, it’s unsurprising to hear that de la Mer was described as a “female Irvine Welsh” by The Glasgow Herald.

Contrary to Layla’s backdrop of strip clubs and dressing rooms, Cal and Manny’s euphoric world of raves, army drills and trips to Amsterdam is a distinctly masculine narrative, and Nina de la Mer was praised for her accurate rendering of the male psyche.

“I didn’t set out to write a masculine or feminine novel,” Nina de la Mer explains. “Instead, both books began with the characters: young working class people doing challenging jobs. I’m really interested in giving a voice to ordinary working people as I think contemporary literary fiction can often unfairly neglect them.”

Layla also differs to 4 a.m. in style: the entire novel is written instructionally, from the second person perspective of narrator Hayleigh.

It’s certainly an unusual stylistic choice, but it’s more than just a gimmick: “My aim was for a narrative voice that would pull the reader directly into her world but that would also capture her own sense of alienation from it,” says Nina de la Mer.

“My hope is that this being ‘in the moment’ with Hayleigh, this immediacy, means readers will root for her, even if she’s not always the most sympathetic of characters.”

I fear that the real, and urgent, issues facing sex workers are getting lost so, no, feminists probably aren’t doing enough to support women in the industry.Haleigh is fairly dismissive of feminists, and I ask if de la Mer believes contemporary feminism is doing enough for women working in the sex industry. Is Hayleigh’s scepticism understandable?

“The book is set in 2007 and Hayleigh’s very much a product of the 00s when ‘feminism’ was a bit of a dirty word,’ de la Mer explains.

“I’m personally a proud feminist and am really thrilled that the movement is now enjoying this brilliant, energising new surge of online campaigning. But it’s also quite maddening to see feminism divided at times, falling prey to the old ‘divide and rule’ trap, setting pro and anti sex work feminists against one another. In this cacophony of voices, I fear that the real, and urgent, issues facing sex workers are getting lost so, no, feminists probably aren’t doing enough to support women in the industry. I don’t think we can just lay the blame at our own door, though: the media should also play a bigger role in confronting the myths that surround sex work and sex workers.”

Nina de la Mer is not completely pro-strip clubs though, and Layla doesn’t paint a particularly attractive picture of the industry. From backstage backstabbing to cocaine addiction, coercion and corruption are rife in Hayleigh’s world.

“I think that they’re grim places,” Nina de la Mer confirms. ‘I think that they’re about power and control; I think that they’re damaging to the dancers and the customers who use them, and to the rest of us.”

“One ex-dancer I spoke with said she thought the clubs are ‘capitalism at its very worst’. I’m inclined to agree, seeing the exchange of money for a minute’s cheap sexual thrill as a lose-lose for both dancer and customer. Saying that, I wouldn’t support an overall ban which would only send the clubs underground,” she elaborates.

“While they do exist, I wish clubs would sort decent employment rights for the dancers and waitresses, including a banning of zero hours contracts, ending fees (which dancers ludicrously have to pay to ‘rent’ the pole) and giving employees sick and holiday pay. I also think that since the government allows councils to grant licenses for these clubs, the school curriculum should include lessons on female objectification and positive female body image for both both girls and boys. That would take a big change but one day we might get there…”

Hayleigh starts the book as a fantasist, but by the end she is completely focused on just one dream: a reunion with her son. Her potential bisexuality, which features in dribs and drabs throughout the novel, falls to the wayside as the plot unfolds, only to be replaced with an imagined heteronormative happy ending. Is heterosexuality just another fantasy for the narrator though?

“Hayleigh is sexually attracted to both men and women, though not always in equal measure,” says Nina de la Mer. “She doesn’t realise that this is OK, that she doesn’t have to make a ‘choice’ between gay or straight. It’s amazing to see LGBT rights come some way in recent years, but are we embracing the full rainbow of sexual preferences, including those who are bisexual or asexual? Probably not.”

Nina de la Mer explains that throughout the novel, Hayleigh is pigeonholed into “various cardboard cut out identities which have been created for women by the media and the patriarchy: the sex worker, the slut, the celebrity wannabe.”

“As those identities fail her one by one, she fantasises about a new societally approved identity: as ‘wife’ (of a man) and ‘mother’,” de la Mer continues.

“Her only other option, as she sees it, is as a ‘benefit scrounging single mother’ which isn’t something she wants to try on for size. Her imagined happy ending, then, is about choice, or rather lack of it, and identity.”

What’s next for de la Mer? “I had a bit of a break after finishing Layla, but am now working very slowly on a third book. It’s a state of the nation novel set in Brighton and Ibiza about two very different families. In part it’s a response to all the ills inflicted on British society since the formation of the coalition government in 2010, but also a peek into the lives of the rave generation who refuse to grow up despite family and other responsibilities. There’s going to be a fair few characters in the novel and I can’t wait to start experimenting with their various voices.” Layla is published by Myriad and available from Foyles now.